Parole crackdown exposes rehabilitation problems

The Chairman of the Adult Parole Board, Bill Gillard QC, says that it is now harder to be granted parole in Victoria, and one substantial cause is the lack of prisoners’ access to rehabilitation programs: “It is Corrections that must make sure that the person is ready for parole. Corrections Victoria has the obligation to put the prisoner in the right position to apply for parole.” This appears to be a vicious cycle, as the lack of access to parole increases prison populations, which, according to Smart Justice, puts further strain on prison services: “There’s a current overcrowding crisis in Victorian jails and the impact of that is it’s denying a chance of proper rehabilitation before prisoners are released from jail.” Corrections Victoria says it has significantly increased funding for rehabilitation programs in the last two years.

Victoria to legalise “sexting”, ban “revenge porn”

The Victorian Government has introduced a bill to address teenage “sexting”, or the sharing of “intimate images”. Concerns had been raised that photos of legal sexual activity between teenagers could result in them being placed on the sex offenders register. Under the changes, where the age gap between the participants is less than 2 years, a photo of a person under the age of 18 will no longer be treated as child pornography. However, it will now be an offence to distribute or threaten to distribute the image without consent. Those offences will also apply to adult “revenge porn”. The legislation is a response to a bipartisan parliamentary Law Reform Committee report, which found that “sexting is being used by adults to intimidate, humiliate and manipulate others”. The chair of the committee, Clem Newton-Brown, explained the bill on radio this week.

Sex offender registration changes go beyond VLRC

Police Minister Kim Wells has revealed the government’s response to a 2012 VLRC report on sex offender registration. The new legislation would “allow police to share sex offender details with the family of a child that has had contact with an offender”, implementing recommendations 57 and 58. However, it would also introduce “new reporting obligations for when they travel, stricter time frames for notifying police of changes in their circumstances, and harsher penalties of up to five years’ jail for failing to meet their obligations”, which go beyond the VLRC’s suggestions.

Mandatory jail opens bidding in law-and-order auction

Premier Denis Napthine has proposed new legislation to crack down on “coward punches” (formerly known as “king hits”) by introducing a 10-year mandatory minimum jail term for the offence. According to the Premier, “Our expectation is that this legislation sends such a strong message that we don’t have people doing these cowards punches in the first place.” However, in a 2008 research report, the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Council warned against mandatory sentencing, noting: “Deterrence presupposes that would-be offenders are rational actors who are capable of weighing up, and actually do weigh up, the costs and benefits of a particular course of conduct. Crime, however, is often impulsive and lacking such judicious forethought.” Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs argues that judges need flexibility to deliver justice: “Discretionary sentencing is a fail-safe mechanism to prevent laws conceived in the abstract from becoming absurdities in practice. … This principle is too important to abandon just because an election is coming up.” The Victorian proposal is harsher than the 8-year mandatory sentence introduced in NSW earlier this year, which suggests the start of a “law-and-order auction” before November’s election.



Court of Appeal to consider “guideline judgment”

The Court of Appeal will today hear Victoria’s first application for a guideline judgment under Part 2AA of the Sentencing Act 1991 (Vic). Because sentences are tailored to individual offenders, it can be difficult for judges to use past cases to guide future decisions.  A guideline judgment allows the Court of Appeal to provide a broad outline of principles and criteria to be applied in all cases. The Judicial College of Victoria explains: “Sometimes the guideline judgment represents an encapsulation of current practices, and its value lies in the marshalling of unwieldy primary source material. Other examples reflect an attempt to impose order on the chaos of inconsistent sentencing decisions.” Although the power to issue a guideline judgment was legislated in 2003, it has never been used. In the case to be heard tomorrow, the Director of Public Prosecutions has asked for guidance about the imposition of Community Correction Orders, a sentencing option that was introduced in 2012. Because this sentencing option is so new, judges do not have a body of precedent to guide their decisions. A guideline sentence would provide immediate clarity about how CCOs should be used.

Prison rehabilitation questioned

The Victorian Ombudsman, Deborah Glass, has launched an investigation into the effectiveness of the prison system in rehabilitating offenders. “According to the Australian  Bureau of Statistics, in 2013 more than 50 per cent of Victoria’s prisoners were repeat offenders,” said Ms Glass. The inquiry will focus on rehabilitation opportunities during imprisonment, as well as the transition back into the community. Prisoners’ families have suggested the increasing prison population is making it harder for offenders to access the help they need. The inquiry will build on other work being done in the area; the previous Ombudsman produced a scathing report on dangerous overcrowding in Victoria’s prisons, while the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare questioned the effectiveness of transition programs to help prisoners adjust upon release.

Koori Court expands to Melbourne

Victoria’s culturally-appropriate Indigenous sentencing system expanded again last week, with the launch of a Koori Court division at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court—the busiest court in the State. Attorney-General Robert Clark said, “The Koori Courts initiative has helped improve justice outcomes for the Koori community for the benefit of all Victorians. Not only have Koori Courts provided more successful outcomes in individual cases, they have improved the engagement of Koori communities with the justice system and have helped build capacity within Koori communities.” Prior to the last election, Denis Napthine described such specialist courts as “apartheid of the justice system in Australia”, but following an Ombudsman’s report indicating early success, the Government decided to keep the system in place.

Huge volume of unpaid fines prompts enforcement rethink

A report by the Sentencing Advisory Council on the enforcement of fines and infringement notices says Victoria is losing over $400 million in unpaid fines per year. It calls for a distinction to be drawn between those who can’t afford to pay and those who simply refuse, and recommends enforcement methods that target refusers, such as flagging their passports: “Restrictions on international travel are an appropriate means of targeting persons who are likely to have the capacity to pay a court fine or infringement penalty (in light of the cost of international travel) but instead wilfully default.” On the other hand, it says those with less capacity to pay should have their fines reduced. The report identifies “high volume tolling offenders” as a specific problem—illustrated yesterday when a warrant was issued by the Dandenong Magistrates’ Court for the arrest of a woman who owes nearly $300,000 in infringement penalties for more than 1000 unpaid tolls.

Prisoners increasingly likely to die after release

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare study shows that Australian prisoners are “12 times more likely to die in the first four weeks after release than their peers in the community”, six times more likely to die in the first year—and the rate has been increasing over the last decade. The report suggests that drugs and suicide are two significant causes of post-release death. The University of Melbourne’s Stuart Kinner said, “A prison sentence in Australia is never meant to be a death sentence… but people released from prison remain at increased risk of death indefinitely”. Victorian prisons offer transition programs to assist people returning to the community, to improve their health and to reduce reoffending; however, increasing prison populations are putting those schemes under strain.

Tougher penalties planned for drink-drivers

An interlock device is a breath-testing machine that prevents a car being started if the driver has alcohol in their breath. Under current Victorian law, “disqualified drivers found to be over 0.15, repeat offenders or those under the age of 26 who record 0.07 are required to have the devices fitted”. However,  the Government has introduced the Road Safety Amendment Bill 2014 into the Legislative Assembly, which would tighten the rules so that they apply to disqualified drivers over 0.07, first offenders over 0.07, and probationary licence holders over the legal limit. According to the Transport Minister, Terry Mulder, “drink-drivers are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of deaths and 11 percent of serious injuries on our roads, while repeat drink-drivers make up 20 percent. Thirty per cent of drink-drivers involved in fatal crashes are repeat offenders.”